Stitching together Narrative, Sexuality, Self: Shelley Jackson's "Patchwork Girl"

Stitching Together Narrative, Sexuality, Self: Shelley Jackson's "Patchwork Girl"

George P. Landow

>>--->August 2000: Jackson and contemporaries reviewed by Tom LeClair.

Patchwork Girl, Shelley Jackson's brilliant hypertext parable of writing and identity, generates both its themes and techniques from the kind of collage-writing intrinsic to hypertext. Jackson, a published book illustrator as well as author, creates a digital collage out of her own words and images as she tells us about the female companion to Frankenstein's monster whose "birth takes place more than once. In the plea of a bygone monster; from a muddy hole by corpse-light; under the needle, and under the pen."

Opening Jackson's patchwork narrative, we first encounter a black-and-white image of the stitched-together protagonist that she cuts and recombines into the images we encounter at various points throughout our reading. (I have pieced together the title bar at the top of this lexia from some of these later versions of this image). The first link takes us to her title page, a rich crossroads document, to which we return repeatedly, that offers six paths out: "a graveyard," "a journal," "a quilt," "a story," "broken accents," and a list of sources. The graveyard, for example, takes us first to a patchwork image created by cutting and rearranging the title screen, after which we receive some directions and then reach the headstone, another overview or crossroads lexia that provides multiple paths; these paths take us to the lives of each of the beings, largely women, whose parts contributed to the Patchwork Girl. Jackson endows each tale, each life, with a distinctive voice, thereby creating a narrative of Bakhtinian multivocality while simultaneously presenting a composite image of women's lives at the turn of the nineteenth century. The Everywoman Monster's left leg, we read,

belonged to Jane, a nanny who harbored under her durable grey dresses and sensible undergarments a remembrance of a less sensible time: a tattoo of a ship and the legend, Come Back To Me. Nanny knew some stories that astonished her charges, and though the ship on her thigh blurred and grew faint and blue with distance, until it seemed that the currents must have long ago finished their work, undoing its planks one by one with unfailing patience, she always took the children to the wharf when word came that a ship was docking, and many a sailor greeted her by name. "My leg is always twitching, jumping, joggling. It wants to go places. It has had enough of waiting."

Patchwork Girl makes us all into Frankenstein-readers stitching together narrative, gender, and identity, for, as it reminds us: "You could say all bodies are written bodies, all lives pieces of writing." This digital collage-narrative assembles Shelley Jackson's (and Mary Shelley's and Victor Frankenstein's) female monster, forming a hypertext Everywoman who embodies assemblage, concatenation, juxtapositions, and blurred, recreated identities--one of many digital fulfillments of twentieth-century literary and pictorial collages. As the monster slyly informs us in a lexia one encounters early on,

I am buried here. You can resurrect me, but only piecemeal. If you want to see the whole, you will have to sew me together yourself. (In time you may find appended a pattern and instructions--for now, you will have to put it together any which way, as the scientist Frankenstein was forced to do.) Like him, you will make use of a machine of mysterious complexity to animate these parts.

Like Donna J. Haraway, Jackson rejoices in the cultural value of monsters. Traveling within Jackson's multisequential narrative, the finest hypertext fiction thus far to have appeared, we first wander along many paths, finding ourselves in the graveyard, in Mary Shelley's journal, in scholarly texts, and in the life histories of the beings--largely women but also an occasional man and a cow--who provided the monster's parts. As we read, we increasingly come to realize an assemblage of points, one of the most insistent of which appears in the way we use our information technologies, our prosthetic memories, to conceive ourselves. Jackson's one-hundred-and-seventy-five-year-old protagonist embodies the effects of the written, printed, and digital word. "I am like you in most ways," she tells us.

My introductory paragraph comes at the beginning and I have a good head on my shoulders. I have muscle, fat, and a skeleton that keeps me from collapsing into suet. But my real skeleton is made of scars: a web that traverses me in three-dimensions. What holds me together is what marks my dispersal. I am most myself in the gaps between my parts, though if they sailed away in all directions in a grisly regatta there would be nothing left here in my place.

For that reason, though, I am hard to do in. The links can stretch very far before they break, and if I am the queen of dispersal, then however far you take my separate parts (wrapped in burlap and greasy fish-wrappers, in wooden carts and wherries, burying and burning me and returning me to the families from which I sprung unloved and bastard) you only confirm my reign.

Hypertext, Jackson permits us to see, enables us to recognize the degree to which the qualities of collage--particularly those of appropriation, assemblage, concatenation, and the blurring of limits, edges, and borders--characterize a good deal of the way we conceive of gender and identity. Sooner or later all information technologies, we recall, have always convinced those who use them both that these technologies are natural and that they provide ways to describe the human mind and self. At the early stage of a digital information regime, "Patchwork Girl" permits us to use hypertext as a powerful speculative tool that reveals new things about ourselves, while at the same time to retain the sense of strangeness, of novelty. Best of all: It is wonderful writing--sharp, bracing, surprising, endlessly inventive.


George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History at BrownUniversity, is the author of half a dozen books on Victorian literature, art, and religion and several on digital culture, including Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology and Hyper/Text/Theory. He created and maintains several large websites including The Victorian Web and The Cyberspace, VR, and Critical Theory Web.

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